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Net Neutrality is More than Meets the Eye

By Ken Yarmosh

What's bewildering in the net neutrality debate is that both sides say they have the same goals - they want the Internet to maintain its usefulness, to keep maturing, and to continue to get better. At first glance, it would be easy to think that one side wants that done via government regulation and the other through the free market. But that's really not the case. Network neutrality is a much more complex issue than "Big Business vs. Consumer Rights" or "Big Government vs. Free-market Competition".

The term 'network neutrality' relates to the regulation of the Internet or more specifically, to the underlying networks that make the Internet possible. Described by one of its more popular supporters David Isenberg, a former AT&T executive, network neutrality "means that the network does not discriminate among different types of traffic based on the traffic's source, destination or content."

In consideration of this definition, to this point network neutrality has essentially been a guiding principle of the Internet. Network providers like Verizon or Qwest have not "discriminated" against different types of network traffic - they have not prioritized content of one site or one content provider over another. Internet users can access websites and content from Google and Yahoo! on equal terms. But without the principle of network neutrality in place, how that content gets served might vary based on how much these and other companies were willing to pay.

Telcos like Verizon argue that they should be able to control how their networks operate. They are the ones investing billions of dollars into network infrastructure. When Yahoo! offers users streaming video that is bandwidth intensive, Verizon sees higher traffic and network use but not necessarily higher profits. They want to change that and pricing their service at different levels - 'discriminating' network traffic - is their answer.

Both sides are hitting the streets hard with their message. And both are equally guilty of playing upon the public's fears and emotions. Network neutrality advocates continually harp on the potential violations of freedom of speech that could occur in a non-network neutral environment. They believe that without legislated network neutrality, telcos could filter or give preferential treatment to certain content through pricing options. That might include only allowing access to the political or religious content of the highest bidder. But considering how closely the FEC examined free speech and the use of blogs and the Internet in the electoral process, for example, it's probable that such concerns are unwarranted.

Equally doubtful is that legislated network neutrality would somehow "deprive parents of new technologies they may use to protect their families from online harm." That quote comes from a letter sent by Senators Sam Brownback and Jim DeMint to their colleagues. The premise of this argument and others like it is that network neutrality legislation (i.e., government regulation) would stifle innovation.

In the case of the Senators' letter, besides that quote being somewhat of a scare tactic, their particular assumptions are not correct. The applications and technologies that protect families online sit on top of network pipes. Net neutrality proponents focus on the network not the applications. Parents can rest assured that legislated network neutrality would not somehow make the net any more unsafe than it already is.

In general, the principle of network neutrality is what has allowed the Internet to be as innovative as it has been. But to reiterate, network neutrality has been a guiding principle of the Internet to this point in its history. It hasn't been called 'network neutrality' until recently. Christopher Yoo, a Vanderbilt University law professor often referenced by opponents of network neutrality legislation, writes that there is a crucial difference between the end-to-end argument (his preference over the term 'network neutrality') being a design principle versus a regulatory mandate - "circumstances do exist in which mandating network neutrality would actually harm competition."

The current policy statement that the FCC adopted on August 5, 2005 confirms four net neutral type principles to "preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet." They've shown that they are willing to back them up too. Thus, in order for a non-network neutral Internet to actually exist, either a huge policy shift would need to occur or it would have to be legislated, just as network neutrality as a regulatory mandate would have to be.

History would prove that the government does not do a good job regulating telecom issues. Just look at what happened on January 1, 1984 and then just over 21-years later on January 31, 2005. The first date represents when AT&T was broken up into seven Regional Bell Operating Companies, due to its monopoly over the local and long distance telephone market. The second date is when SBC bought out AT&T and in essence restored it as a local and long distance provider (SBC subsequently assumed the name 'AT&T').

Congress has net neutrality in its scope though and seems somewhat determined to act on this issue. There are several proposed bills in the work. The Internet is not broken, however, and it doesn't need anyone to try to fix it. That does not mean that the net neutrality camp is completely wrong and their opponents right. A defeat of the net neutrality bills would only be considered a temporary win for the telcos, if it is a win at all. The status quo is network neutrality as a design principle and there would be nothing that indicated otherwise. Of course, the telcos might try to push their issue by pointing to the defeated net neutrality legislation. In all probability though, they would need some sort of new legal precedence set or legislation of their own in order to really get what they wanted.

If things heat up and Congress is pressured to legislate on this issue with what is on the table, then Senator Ted Stevens' "Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006" is presently the best choice. It does not impose mandated network neutrality. Instead, it calls for a 5-year annual reporting period by the FCC regarding the "development in Internet traffic" and how those developments "impact the free flow of information over the public Internet." If necessary, recommendations could be made based on those findings.

In the end, the optimal situation is that everything is left as is, without any new legislation being adopted or any new policy towards net neutrality as a design principle. The government should not mandate net neutrality nor should it empower the telcos to exercise oligopoly like gate keeping powers over Internet traffic. Network neutrality as a design principle has worked quite well thus far. At the very least, Senator Stevens' bill as it currently stands adheres to that idea and so if push comes to shove, get behind it.

Ken currently serves as the Editor of the Corante Web Hub, a starting point for keeping abreast of the best writing and thinking on the forces and factors impacting the Web.

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